The 49ers' battle for running back gets more intriguing by the day. Elijah Mitchell is RB1. However, he's out for the preseason with a hamstring injury. Trey Sermon, Ty Davis-Price, JaMycal Hasty, and Jordan Mason couldn't ask for a better opportunity to prove they deserve carries during the regular season.
It's only the second preseason game, and 49er fans seem to have given up on Sermon. In his defense, the offensive line was inconsistent all night. Aaron Banks didn't have his best outing yet was far from the most ineffective lineman.
Sermon carried the ball five times for eight yards, with five of those coming after contact. He also had a drop where it looked like Sermon didn't pick up the ball until the last minute. Any hopes of Sermon becoming the third down back took a hit after being late to pick up a blitz from the other side of the formation.
Kyle Shanahan was asked if he saw anything more from Sermon after a second watch:
“No. It’s about what I thought. I was glad that he was able to start the game and help us out through that. And it didn’t last that long, but he took advantage of the plays that he had.”
To his credit, Sermon showed versatility by lining up in the slot and out wide at receiver, where he looked comfortable running routes and caught his other target.
Still, Sermon always leaves you wanting more. It's not his fault when there are no running lanes. But he can do a better job of being decisive and falling forward. Shanahan spoke about that and the rookie running backs:
“Yeah, I thought they all had a couple of good runs where they did break some tackles and create. I thought they also had some holes that they missed where it’s not blocked great, but we have to get at least a yard on a couple of those.
They all got running skills, so they do good jobs when they get the ball a number of times, but just trying to make them all be complete all-around backs to where they know their assignments and protections, know all the right techniques and the handoffs, know the way to line up in the formations, not having to ask the quarterbacks and stuff like that. And those are things we’re constantly trying to work on with all those young backs.”
You can tell Davis-Price and Sermon are still getting acclimated to how they're supposed to run on a specific play.
The 49ers ran the ball 28 times against the Vikings. Fourteen were gap schemes, while the other 14 were zone plays. Each type of run requires different footwork, patience, and vision from the runner.
Other times, it's as simple as following your blocks. For example, watch Ross Dwelley, the fullback, below. He gets a 2-for-1 as he kicks out the defensive end (#95) and then peels off to block the linebacker flying through the air:
Shanahan said he thought the RBs missed some holes. It’d be tough to block this play to the frontside any better. The FB gets a 2-for-1. You pancake the DT.— KP (@KP_Show) August 22, 2022
If Trey Sermon follows his lead blocker Dwelley, he has a 1-on-1 with the safety. Instead, he bounces it. pic.twitter.com/0Bo1ILrkrx
It would've been tough for the line to block this play any better. The left tackle and left guard, Justin Skule and Aaron Banks, get a combo block and a pancake on the play-side defensive tackle.
Sermon should be looking inside and reading Dwelley. That's not to say this is an explosive play if Sermon follows Dwelley. But by bouncing, he eliminates his chance for a 1-on-1 and a potential big play.
Sermon's not the only one. TDP is getting used to zone runs after running predominant gap schemes at LSU. For example, on Davis-Price's first carry, he was looking to cut the play back the entire way.
A tackle at the line of scrimmage after cutting against the grain could have been three or four yards had TDP stuck his foot in the ground and got upfield.
Both runners have a propensity to bounce their carries to the outside. Occasionally, you'll break two tackles and turn those into 15-yard runs, as Davis-Price did. But eight out of ten times, you'll run right into an extra defender for a minimal gain.
Look inside, slow to, fast through. Those are words to live by for every running back approaching the line of scrimmage. Saying "running backs don't matter" ignores the intricacies backs deal with before they reach the line. Sermon and Davis-Price will only improve with game reps.
I loved Shanahan's point about needing to ask the quarterbacks. That's a sign the player doesn't know what to do. JaMycal Hasty looked the best of the bunch for my money. He looked like he knew his job. Hasty had an impressive blitz pickup that allowed the offense to pick up a first down during the two-minute drill.
He was assertive as a blocker. There was a carry where Hasty was met in the backfield by an unblocked defender. He made him miss and turned the play into a positive gain. Finally, Hasty scored a touchdown.
We can't talk about the running backs without mentioning Jordan Mason, who forced six missed tackles and had 44 of his 57 yards come after contact. Mason also ran for four first downs on nine carries. Mason's a no-nonsense runner who seems like an ideal fit in a Shanahan scheme. If Mason's cut, perhaps that's who Shanahan was talking about when he brought up asking the quarterbacks what to do.
The leaderboard changes daily at running back. Don't be surprised if this is a season-long process if Mitchell misses time. Outside of Jeff Wilson Jr., each back is under 25. One play doesn't define them. They all have their flashes. The next step is consistency.
I used one example for Sermon and Davis-Price to highlight carries that show up on more than one occasion. These are easy fixes. Follow and trust your blocks. Don’t look to turn everything into a track meet to the sideline. Trust what you see.
Those are just a few things the running backs can do to help themselves. It’d be a story if first and second year players weren’t making mistakes. Keep an eye on whether or not these mistakes keep happening.